Of Birds and Bird-Watchers

by Joe Meche

Snow geese
photo: Joe Meche

As fascinated as any behavioral anthropologist might be, I am always interested in origins and personal stories of how we all came to be and eventually evolved into who or what we are today. One special niche that has always intrigued me is how humans first became interested in birds and carried that interest into the mass of knowledge that we have at our fingertips today. Not everyone was born with a proclivity for watching birds, for instance, yet the number of birdwatchers worldwide tells the tale. 

My early interest was a result of my hometown in Louisiana being at the convergence of two major migration corridors. All the avian species that cross the Gulf of Mexico to breed in central and eastern North America seemed to go right through our greater backyard. The town and neighboring communities were also surrounded by prime wintering habitats … the foremost being rice fields. 

These fields attracted enormous flocks of waterfowl that fed throughout the winter on the stubble left in the fields. It was virtually impossible to ignore the birds. After the rice was harvested in the fall, the fields became a boundless playground filled with winged creatures from faraway places like … Canada! With the rice gone and the fields drained, miles of levees beckoned to kids who had yet to become addicted to a new household appliance …television. 

Geese, ducks, shorebirds, and passerine species foraged and rested in the enormous fields and ignored our noisy play. It was great fun, but no amount of time with friends compared with the walks and quieter time I spent exploring the maze of nearby bayous and backwaters, often with the family dog in tow.

My early experiences of enjoying the quiet and the natural sounds were the direct result of my grandfather’s words of advice to sit quietly and see what finds you! In retrospect, it seems like it was a great idea and one way for him to control a potentially noisy child when he was out on one of his regular walks. His ability to remain quiet always impressed me. Cardinals and blue jays thought he was part of the scenery. He led by example.                                                                                                                                        

In those quieter times, birdwatchers seemed to be gentlemen in tweeds and little old ladies in sneakers and floppy hats. They were almost an anomaly and deserving of the status they would later gain as stereotypes. A few of these stereotypes were responsible for turning the tide on the senseless slaughter of birds around the turn of the century. Frank Chapman, of the newly formed National Audubon Society, proposed the first Christmas Bird Count (CBC) as an alternative to the traditional Christmas Side Hunt.

The CBC was established in 1900 and started with only a handful of participants across North America. That initial effort has grown to more than 50,000 people at almost 2,000 separate locations in 17 countries. As the CBC grew, so did the supporting cast. Many birdwatchers tested their own wings for the first time by participating in CBCs, along with family or friends who were already involved. The CBC became the foremost example of citizen science and continues to add significant data about the seasonal locations and movements of birds across the continent. 

With structured programs through organizations like the National Audubon Society and the publication of handy field guides like Roger Tory Peterson’s “Guide to the Birds,” bird-watching as we know it today was off and running. The number of bird-watchers grew exponentially over the years, and today bird-watching is the most popular recreational activity in the country.  Along with its growing worldwide popularity, bird-watching and the bird-watchers themselves have taken on a new look. 

Bird-watchers are the consummate keepers of lists, and those lists range from backyard lists to trip lists and eventually to the ultimate list … the life list! Bird-watchers’ conversations often drift to the subject of lists, no matter how much they try to avoid it and give the impression of competition. Truth be known, it’s more fun for some people to find one or two species more than you did. Suddenly, competition became part of bird-watching. 

Every imaginable variation of competition began to filter its way into bird-watching. An activity that always had the potential to be a relaxing way to spend time outdoors had become to some folks a new way to compete. The competitive aspect was apparently added to make bird- watching more exciting. And since it was now considered a competitive sport, the label bird- watcher was too tame, so people began calling themselves birders. 

Bird-watching took on a new look as the spirit of competition swept through the rank and file, primarily through the practice of doing Big Days and Big Years. The Big Day is a competition that takes place over a 24-hour period where a team or an individual identifies as many species as they can within that time limit. Big Day teams often have sponsors and there might even be prizes at the end of the day for the winners.

A variation in the Big Day that has swept across the country is the Birdathon, which is usually geared as a fundraiser for sponsoring nonprofit organizations. The main similarity is the 24-hour time period in which you can count species. The North Cascades Audubon Society sponsored a Birdathon years ago and the excitement was slow to catch on, as shown by the low turnout. In its last year, only two teams participated … the same two teams that had participated since the inception! 

A Big Year, as the name implies, is the broadest ranging of all the competitions. In this competition, there is no limit to how far you travel to add to your list for the year. It’s almost like having 365 consecutive Big Days!

If you plan to do a Big Year, prepare to spend a lot of time and money if you expect to compete for the big prize. If you want to read about the obsession that drives people to do a Big Year, read “The Big Year,” by Mark Obmascik. The author focuses on three individuals vying for the North American Big Year record. This is the ultimate competition that bird-watching has become. 

While these counts are focused more on fun and competition, the CBC is more science-based to provide essential data for overall bird populations. CBCs tally the total number of individual birds, while the other counts require only one bird per species. If you see 500 robins, they still count as only one. Such are the basic rules and regulations that come with any form of competition. If you choose to be a competitive birder instead of a relaxed bird-watcher, you’ll have to toe the line!

Whenever I think of Duck (my grandfather’s nickname), I remember the quiet that surrounded him, and, in turn surrounded me. I could always see his chin drop to his chest when he went a little beyond mere relaxation. For this bird-watcher, give me the times when I can find a nice perch to sit quietly and see what finds me. As I get older, it might be time for me to invest in a folding camp stool and a pith helmet … just like grandpa’s.    


Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written over 200 columns for Whatcom Watch.

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